Facebook Pixel Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM [REVIEW]

Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM [REVIEW]

Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM [REVIEW]As I normally shoot travel and landscape, with occasional product shots and weddings, it’s not often I play with the big guns. You know, 400, 500 and 600mm lenses.

But with the help of BorrowLenses.com, I was able to borrow and shoot with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM in Alaska for two weeks. I tried the camera on a Canon 7D. I was there primarily to gather product shots of one of InnerSea Discoveries’ new vessels and teach photography.

If you are interested in the fine details and laboratory results from this lens, DXOMark will have that information out soon. My goal today is to give you my impressions using the lens hands-on. How useful and portable is it? How practical is it? And what can we expect from image quality?


Here are some of the raw stats from Canon’s website.

Focal Length & Maximum Aperture 400mm 1:2.8
Lens Construction 16 elements in 12 groups (Including drop-in rear filter, Fluorite: G2 and G4, UD Lens: None)
Diagonal Angle of View 6° 10′
Focus Adjustment Inner focusing system, with focusing cam
Closest Focusing Distance 2.7m / 8.86 ft.
Filter Size 52mm Drop-In
Max. Diameter x Length, Weight 6.4 x 13.5 in, 135.8 oz. / 163.0 x 343.0mm, 3850g

The Controls

Beginning with the controls of the lens, you may not have seen so many buttons and switches. Indeed, the 400mm II has more than your average lens, but they all serve important purposes. On the main section of the body are these switches.

Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM [REVIEW]

From top to bottom:

  • Image Stabilize Mode allows for full image stabilization or stabilization while panning. Mode 3 offers some battery savings by only correcting for vibration when the exposure is made, rather than while the shutter is half pressed.
  • Stabilizer On/Off is self explanatory.
  • The Set button allows the use of Focus Preset below. This is used to pick a point of focus, hit the set button, then use the playback ring (the white ring with the ribs in the top photo) to snap to that focus.

Near the back of the lens are these buttons.

Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM [REVIEW]

They are:

  • Focus Mode selection: AF for Auto Focus, PF for Power Focus and MF for Manual Focus. Power Focus allows the playback ring to be used to power focus the lens instead of manually, at a consistent speed. This is useful for video applications and not so much for stills.
  • Range Limiting selection: A time saving device, the range limiting switch helps define ranges for the focus to stop at. If all objects are further than 7m, for instance, the lens will not hunt all the way back to its nearest focus point when it can’t find a lock. This saves time and battery.

In The Field

Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM [REVIEW]Let’s start with the weight of this monster. It’s a monster. If you’re not accustomed to using such a large lens, it takes getting used to. The lens has its own neck/shoulder strap which I used often on my shoulder. Adjusted properly, this made the lens relatively comfortable to carry.

Lugging this lens from location to location, via transport, is best done with the 400C carry case, pictured here (click image for larger version). The only problem is it is slightly too long to fit in the overhead bin of the Boeing 737s I flew in. I could fit it overhead when laid sideways, but be warned, it’s over the official length.

The lens hood seen in the top picture thankfully inverts for easy transport and comes with a cloth cover. I found it best to leave the hood attached most of the time and use the cover that way instead of directly on the lens. The lens has its own mounting point with two locations for screws depending on the type of head used (I would suggest a gimbal head to help stop the lens from falling over). This foot has padding on one side to double as a convenient carry handle.

Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM [REVIEW]I tested this lens without any special filter but it does have a slot near the rear to accepted selected Canon filters, such as a polarizing filter.

In use the camera is excellent. I handheld the camera most of the time because I was on a boat and often the railing was an excellent place to place the lens. You do not need to use a tripod with this lens. That being said, you better start working out now if you plan to do this. I am not someone who is super fit, I’m just not bright, so I handheld the lens most of the time. It made me more mobile.

Although, when on a tripod for a few occasions, I enjoyed that the lens could swivel on the mount to shoot portrait. Not only that, it had the most obvious detentes of any lens I’ve used. Easy to tell when it was leveled out and locked.

Focus was swift, but not lightning fast. I was testing it alongside a Sigma lens of similar, but lesser, range on a Sigma SD-1 and teh focus of the Canon was much faster. The large focus ring (it’s that black band in the middle) made manual focusing a breeze as I wasn’t having to hunt for a small ring. It is well positioned as well. This lens is built for wildlife and it focuses fast enough to catch whales as they breach.

Below are some examples of the lens in use with corresponding exposure info. A number of the shots are cropped versions of the original. Click on an image to bring up the original, full size image.

NOTE: Almost every picture is taken from a moving object, be it a 170′ long vessel (as pictured) or from the smaller skiffs. The larger aperture allowed for fast enough shutter speeds to overcome the vibrations found on boats.

Image: ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/2000

ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/2000

Image: ISO 800, f3.5, 1/8000

ISO 800, f3.5, 1/8000

Image: ISO 100, f/3.5, 1/4000

ISO 100, f/3.5, 1/4000

Image: ISO 320, f/3.5, 1/2000

ISO 320, f/3.5, 1/2000

Image: ISO 800, f/4.5, 1/1600

ISO 800, f/4.5, 1/1600

Image: ISO 800, f/4.5, 1/1600

ISO 800, f/4.5, 1/1600

Image: ISO 800, f/3.5, 1/2000

ISO 800, f/3.5, 1/2000

Image: ISO 800, f/3.5, 1/2000

ISO 800, f/3.5, 1/2000

Image: ISO 500, f/2.8, 1/320

ISO 500, f/2.8, 1/320

Image: ISO 320, f/4.5, 1/2000

ISO 320, f/4.5, 1/2000

Image: ISO 400, f/4.5, 1/2500

ISO 400, f/4.5, 1/2500

Image: ISO 640, f/4.5, 1/2000

ISO 640, f/4.5, 1/2000

Image: ISO 400, f/3.2, 1/2000

ISO 400, f/3.2, 1/2000

Image: ISO 400, f/3.2, 1/2000

ISO 400, f/3.2, 1/2000

Image: ISO 400, f/4.5 1/1250

ISO 400, f/4.5 1/1250

Image: ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/1600

ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/1600

Image: ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/1250

ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/1250

Image: ISO 500, f/4, 1/4000

ISO 500, f/4, 1/4000

Image: ISO 500, f/4, 1/4000

ISO 500, f/4, 1/4000

Image: ISO 500, f/4, 1/3200

ISO 500, f/4, 1/3200

Image: ISO 500, f/4, 1/2500

ISO 500, f/4, 1/2500

Image: ISO 400, f/3.5, 1/3200

ISO 400, f/3.5, 1/3200


The Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM is a treat to use but not a treat to carry around. It is best used when a base of operations can be established, like a boat or near a campsite. The sharpness from side to side is impressive but needs to be balanced with thegeneral aspect of it being a fixed focal length lens. This is fairly easily overcome with cropping final images, especially as the pixel count on future cameras climbs.

I am thankful to BorrowLenses.com for the lends of this lens, without which, these shots would less crisp and further away.

Interested in buying this lens? Check your bank balance first – it’s not cheap. Get an up to date price on the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM II Super Telephoto Lens at Amazon here.

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Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM
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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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